With the 65th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel just a few days away, let’s take some time to ponder the meaning of a key phrase that appears in the prayer for the State: reishit tzmihat geulatenu–the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. What do those words mean to you?
Of course, in order to establish what it means for the emergence of the modern Jewish state to be a step toward redemption, we need to know what corporate redemption–“our redemption” looks like. Every Shabbat, when we read the prayer for the State, we admit that midway through its seventh decade, Israel is still in the reishit stage–they’ve only just begun.
I’d like to set an aspirational vision for redemption by looking at a curious life cycle custom that was popular among some Jews despite what their rabbis told them they shouldn’t do. The origins of that custom are in this Shabbat’s Torah reading. After giving birth to a boy, the mother is in a state of tum-ah, ritual ineligibility, as during her menstrual cycle. Then, after the brit on the eighth day, “she shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days…” (Leviticus 12:3).
Maimonides mentions a troubling custom that appears to be based on this ruling–and lashes out against it. The custom is that a new mother is not to engage in marital intimacy 40 days after childbirth, even if there was no trace of blood beyond the first week. “This custom is…the manner of heresy in those localities, and it was learned from the Sadducees” (Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relationships 11:15).
Lo and behold, not all Jews paid heed to the Rambam’s warning. The Jews of Libya observed a “celebration of the forty” as follows: “When the child is forty days old, his mother conducts for him a small celebration that consists of the lighting of candles in the home, and the cooking of beans or hametz, which she distributes to the neighbors.” (See Daniel Sperber, The Jewish Life Cycle: Custom, Lore and Iconography, p. 43).
On Shabbat morning, I’ll reveal the reasons behind this celebration, and the roots of the custom. I’ll also share my thoughts on the connection of this custom to the idea that the State of Israel brings us hope in the possibility of redemption. Aren’t you curious?
Rabbi David Wise